Subban, Ekholm growing into one of NHL’s top defensive pairs

WPPROD

One of the Predators' biggest question marks entering the 2016-17 season was how the defensive pairings would gel with the loss of former defenseman Shea Weber and the addition of P.K. Subban to the roster.

While things started off rather shakily through the month of October, it’s clear that the pieces are slowly falling together and Nashville’s defense is back to its former glory – if not perhaps stronger than it was before.

Curiously enough, it wasn’t the exchange of Weber and Subban that raised my eyebrows, but of what was going to happen to both Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm. Both Subban and Roman Josi want the puck, so it’s natural that both don’t necessarily play on the same pairing. Instead, the classic Ellis-Ekholm pairing split has split off to accommodate both Josi and Subban.

With Predators head coach Peter Laviolette understanding there was going to be a growth period to start the season, it didn’t help that Nashville’s preseason couldn’t offer an ample amount of time for the adjustment phase to run its course.

“I do think there was a little bit of an adjustment period there,” Laviolette said. “We couldn't get it done in training camp just based on some injuries and the World Cup. It didn't come together maybe as quick as we'd like. I think that the pairings we've had through the month of November, I've seen a lot more comfort in each other, especially (Subban) and (Ekholm). I think they had a tremendous month. They're big, they're strong in their skating and they're using each other now in a 200-foot game.”

At first glance, both Ellis and Ekholm have slowly adjusted to their new defensive partners quite admirably. Both have played nearly 2,000 minutes together since the 2011-12 season – coming as close as you can to an exclusive pairing. The comparisons that Ekholm has found in Subban, though, have eased that transition for both of them.

“(Ellis and Subban) are both offensive-minded defensemen, so they're similar in that way,” Ekholm said. “The biggest part of it is breakouts in our own end and what you like to do down there. That's been different, for sure. (Subban) is talking a lot out there, so that makes it easier. It's just a matter of time where you know he's there or not there, he's talking and you recognize his voice and all that.

“It's been a few weeks, but it's been better.”

In Nashville’s last five games (4-1-0), the Ekholm-Subban pairing have been on the ice for four goals against: two empty-net goals against Winnipeg, one shorthanded goal against Dallas and one coming in the final minute against Tampa Bay. As the coaching staff gains confidence in them, both have seen their minutes increase – clocking in over 23 per night.

“Now we're even getting games against the other teams top lines,” Ekholm said. “That's a first time for me having that and taking a lot of responsibility with it. It's been fun, first and foremost, and this month has been good for us as a team. For us as well and how we've been playing in our own end.”

Their possession metrics are one item of particular importance. Both Ekholm and Subban exited October with even-strength Corsi For percentages under 50 percent, meaning that both were spending more time fending off shots toward their own net then producing ones of their own. Now? They’ve tiptoed into the 60s over the last handful of games and seen their season percentage grow to 53 percent, making them one of the better defensive pairings in the NHL.

“It takes a few games, it really does,” Ekholm said. “I feel like we've been finding each other better lately, especially the last five or 10 games. It's been going in the right direction. I feel like we're finding each other out there and knowing where the other guy is. You don't really have to look; you just know he's there. For sure, it's a process, but we both embrace it and it's getting a lot better.”

Subban added: “It takes time. Even though we're 20 games in, there are still a lot of things I'm learning. At the end of the day, you have to take it one step at a time.”

Ekholm’s growth into the defenseman he’s showcased so far this season should not come as a shock. The Predators have been the poster child across the NHL for success in churning out elite-level defensemen year after year.

Playing with only a handful of defenseman in his career with the Canadiens, much like Ekholm in Nashville, Subban can’t help but shower praise on his Swedish partner.

“I think there's a blend of everything,” Subban said. “(Ekholm) is one of the best two-way defensemen in the league, from his ability to skate the puck out of the zone, break up attacks and also contribute offensively. He has the ability to jump up in the rush as a fourth man and I think that's what makes it so difficult to defend him. I think when we're both out there, we just try to read off each other and use each other.

“I see a blend of pretty much the defensemen I've had the privilege of playing with in Montreal. (Andrei Markov) is probably the most cerebral defenseman I've ever played with, in terms of how he sees the ice and how smart he is. He's really, really good and he's a veteran; he's been doing it for a long time. (Ekholm) has a blend of everything and I think that's what makes it so easy to play with him.”

Through the first quarter of the season, both Ekholm and Subban have had their own unique growing pains, but what emerged from the sludge of October is a Nashville team, and a defensive unit, that fully understands what it’s capable of.

If November is any sign of things to come, Nashville’s defensive prowess should only continue to increase over the next handful of months.

“I think we can get a lot better. I don't think we've played our best hockey as a defense,” Subban said. “I think we have a lot more to give and everybody feels that way.”